Local Radio Live…

Have a look at the picture above which was tweeted by BBC Bristol and featured on eRadio this morning with the caption, ‘lots of people watching in the rain’. Is this what BBC Bristol call a great picture of a great event?

This happens too often. I was recently walking through my local shopping centre and a station (one that really should know better) was doing what they call a ‘live OB’ of sorts. All they had was a table, nothing visually impressive at all with the exception of a few pop up banners and a presenter with a couple of promotional staff wandering around handing out leaflets and such like. What they did have in terms of outside equipment looked like it needed replaced but I stood and watched as people walked by. No crowds, no interest, nothing, it was embarrassing. There was no show of any kind, nothing to keep people interested yet here they were in all their glory. I shook my head and wondered why they were doing this. An outside event, no matter what, is projecting an image of who you are. Stations go to great lengths to sound good on the air but when they step outside, they often throw it all away. You simply can’t afford to get these things wrong today. You look cheap, you are cheap, you are not the kind of station I want to be associated with. These are the thoughts that are often going through the minds of those who watch you in action.

In between so called live links back to the station, there was nothing going on whatsoever. Once or twice, the presenter shouted something on a mic. No one cared, no one listened. There was nothing to listen too, he was just an idiot with a loud toy. The days are long gone when you can turn up and just expect something to happen. We live in a world where everything must be pre planned; this is your audience for goodness sake and if you are going to be outside, then you need to impress with some kind of performance or at least project yourself in the most positive manner possible. You have to be constantly on your game. Certainly, tweeting a picture that doesn’t show you at your best is to be avoided.

This OB lark has been a pet hate of mine for some time. Either you have the budget to do this right such as (Capital, Heart, Free Radio, Absolute, TeamRock etc) and have a plan of what you are doing when you are there or I would urge you not to do it at all. And this goes for BBC Local Radio too. I have witnessed them presenting a live show from some location or other while wondering why the hell they are there when they can do this just as well in a studio. There is no point going outside if it reduces the value of what you do on the air. Most presenters I know hate doing live events anyway. 20 years ago, I could present a show from Blackpool and a couple of thousand people might turn up, today one man and a dog with a copy of Exchange and Mart in his pocket might go along. Life today is very different and while some do indeed present themselves very well, others, as often seen in eRadio, need a lot more thought. The worst are those who have agreed to do something for a client and have dropped their trousers and standards for a few quid. It may be a revenue earner but sadly the station often loses more than they gain. A listener cannot unsee what they’ve seen! And while I am at it, can I vent my anger at the stuff local stations give out in the name of promotional gifts. Most people don’t want it, don’t need it or even value it. You don’t need lots of things, you just the right things.

When deciding to go outside or not you have to ask yourself lots of questions. Why are we there? What is the reason? Are we at an event or are WE the event? How are we going to do it? Is it because we want to or because we need to? Is there a good budget? Do we have a plan? How are we going to look? Are we going to entertain anyone? What is our image? Are we on a stage or in a corner? Is this for a client or to make some money?…. If someone came along and saw what we were doing, would they be impressed? You are promoting your brand, something you have invested greatly in. Are you sure you want to do this? PS. You don’t have to be a big station to look impressive either. The smallest can do it just as well with some clever ideas.

The bottom line is this: Radio stations should only venture out of their studios with the greatest of caution. Do it right or don’t do it at all. No one has ever rang a radio station to complain that you were not at an event, but thousands have often walked away disappointed when you did!

19 thoughts on “Local Radio Live…

  1. Great post – as always. I always wondered why people waste budgets on things like sticky bugs and balloons. Sure they are cheap, but they are a total waste of money. Capital used to have a massive vehicle called the Capital FM Rig in the early 90’s. It was massive and just made the whole event look big, bold, and very exciting. I’ve worked on some radio stations where the OB is literally the presenter filling between songs in the pouring rain. It’s frankly embarrassing as you said. Why not keep the on-air interaction to a 15 minute segment so you can ensure people turn up for that precise moment. Otherwise it’s a waste of time as you say.

    1. Thanks Ed. We’ve all been there and bought stuff like this but as competition grows around you, then you must step up and really think why you are there, what you are giving out and why and of course, ask if the freebies really showcase your station in the right way. I’ve worked on stations where I had to do a Live OB but there was no audible PA which made things even worse!

  2. It’s down entirely to economics. To do an event really well, you DO need money and resources, it’s not just a question of having “clever ideas”. At a time when most BBC local radio stations have just come out of a round of savage DQF cuts, their best bet would be to abandon OBs altogether. Yet bosses will still insist they’re done, especially in those areas with few RAJAR diary ticks in that postcode. You can do a great event OR you can do an OB, but with limited resources you simply cannot do both well. So the few staff who are sent out have to concentrate on getting it right for the radio listener, perhaps at the expense of the punters who are there with the umbrellas. Commercial local radio would seldom even think about doing an OB, concentrating all their resources on putting on an impressive roadshow with lots of promotional material and “prizes” for punters to take away and give them a reason to stand there in the rain. BBC local radio simply isn’t allowed to do this with licence-payers’ money.

    1. Thanks John. If your boss wants to do an OB and can’t explain why, you need a new boss. Doing it to fill in a few dark rajar spots never works. What you need is more promotion in other areas. The BBC kind of thing where they go on an OB just because they can drives me nuts. Why, what for, who will benefit etc? 9/10 it is never the listener. People think they need to do this stuff when in reality they don’t. I also think commercial radio and the freebie gift giving thing is worthless too! There are very few impressive roadshows as such… believe me!

  3. Great post as always JM. Sadly the key issue here is revenue. It’s generally because a client wants it, and the sales teams are either too scared to, or don’t have the confidence to say: ‘NO Mr Client, what you really need is airtime, and here’s why…’ If people only skim read this (and I sincerely hope they don’t), please take heed of the last few lines.

  4. Did a week of them for Plymouth Sound as part of the Looe 400 Charter celebrations (in Cornwall). Brilliant week – had a massive impact in an area we’d not been that strong in. As I recall, there’d been a phenomenal amount of planning, prep and research to make sure that what you describe didn’t happen. Culminated in me “having my head chopped off” in front of a crowd of hundreds. A real, very sharp axe – and it came across brilliantly on air, especially as my voice dropped an octave after it happened. I still shudder now at the memory. Wish I had some pictures. This was back in 1987 – REAL radio, loving crafted by the likes of Bob Hussell (RIP) and Louise Churchill. Two of the best mentors one could have.

    1. When it’s done right Chris and with passion, budget and a bit of thought, everyone wins. It reminds me of the time when someone met me after listening to me on the air for years. When they saw me in person they were greatly disappointed. I imagined you were ‘different’ to what stands before me she said! That my friends, is a good reason to always stay indoors. There is a reason we are on the radio!

  5. John, I’ve worked within BBC for over 20 years. The number of OB’s we go on because someone upstairs think we need to be in the eyes and ears of the public is baffling. Many times the programmes are worse because of it. I understand local country shows and big events but we often do an OB from some crazy locations just because we can. We used to have a BBC Bus for these kind of things and that was great. There were things for listeners to see and do, now there is nothing but a sad old git on a mic and someone trying desperately to interview someone, anyone.

    A very useful blog, I hope BBC management read it especially that last para.

    1. Ah yes, The BBC Local Radio bus. Whatever happened to that. I actually went to see it once and it was very impressive. This was something that was different and a reason to visit a station on the road….. I suspect budget costs and such like meant it bit the dust.

  6. Hi John.

    Interesting post as usual. I heartily agree with the frustration of seeing someone try and make something out of nothing. The only person that feels worse than the observer, is the poor person trying to do it.

    In my twenties, I was at BRMB and was lucky enough to involved with the early editions of Party in the Park. That was a week long construction, every presenter on station, most of the artists in the top 20 and an audience of tens of thousands. A real joy to be part of (backstage) – of course Capital had the resources, and foresight to do it.

    But may I throw in another scenario which really does work?

    This evening I am producing an OB for BBC Radio Solent from Hayling Island. It’s the sailing show, live from the penultimate day of the world championships. This will be me, the presenter & guests… and that’s it.

    Both examples are OBs – but that’s where the similarity ends. The main difference being the former IS the event being a radio programme, whereas the latter is a radio programme being AT an event.

    For me as the producer of a specialist show, having a number of Olympic and Americas Cup sailors competing in a world championship on our doorstep is too good an opportunity to miss. We owe it to our audience to bring that event to them. There’s no way that we can bring that atmosphere alive being stuck in the studio 20 miles away, and of course there’s the logistics of getting all the guests to the studio microphone.

    We will be on the balcony of the sailing club, with an appropriate amount of branding so people getting pictures of the presenter and interviewees (it’s not often you get a chance to get a pic of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston interviewing an Olympic champion) will have our branding too.

    In a series of 25 programmes, we do the same thing around 18 times. All OBs, all taking the station brand into the community we serve, and all bringing the event to our audience. But we are never THE event.

    Horah for the OB!

    1. A great post Neil and thank you.

      I totally agree that this is an OB worth doing. When there is a solid reason to be there, that you can deliver more on the air while being at an event than being in the studio and you get valuable guests and such like, then yes, why not. What I am against is an OB just because you can.

      Well done and good luck with it all. Sounds like a very promising event to be at.

  7. Interesting post. I was recently at a Free Radio event and it was first class. Classy deck chairs to sit on, station staff all dressed the same, stage well dressed and even the sun was shining. I don’t think it was their event but the overall impression of what they were doing left me with a positive image. Their own walkathon event seems to be an enormous undertaking and throughout the whole walk they seemed to own what they were doing.

    The Capital Ball is another fine example of an event that is within the same league of ownership. The financial undertaking for these events though must be enormous but this is how listeners compare one station to another. They don’t get that one is a small station and another is a big one; they just see something classy verses something trashy. The image you are left with is exactly as you describe.

    I have seen a smaller station in attendance at local shopping centres in Wolverhampton and I thought it was OK but nothing more. I used to work in marketing so I take an active interest. If you are small, work to your budget and ensure you don’t do anything to damage your product. A show is a big undertaking because it will always be judged against the rest, and the rest is often part of a larger group and much more impressive. The list of questions you set out in the blog is something all companies should ask themselves but as one of your poster has described, the rush for cash and the lack of courage to ask why we are doing it up the food chain often means you take the money and run….

  8. This blog made me laugh John, bringing back some horrific memories of working at a station in the (not-that-distant) past…

    The station in question (which has since transferred owners and rebranded) had recently launched and in an extremely competitive market, decided to take literally any money clients would give it. This resulted in me presenting 4-hour-long OBs from locations which were about as commercial radio as Mantovani: a farmers market, a glorified garden centre and, my favourite by a mile, a car dealership on a truly deserted industrial estate. It happened to be raining that day and I confess to unintentional unprofessionalism when telling the tech op on talkback – in full earshot of the client – ‘there’s no-one here’. It was dreadful, and was so off-format, it’s no wonder the station was quickly sold (and then sold again).

    Interestingly, a lot of BBC locals are doing a lot more regular OBs these days as part of the ‘Big Tour’ format – which sees the station focusing on one town in the TSA for a week in its peak news programmes, culminating in an OB in said town at the end of the week – repeated each week for a couple of months. It has its positives – it creates a visible presence in parts of the TSA the station never usually visits (particularly as journos are sent to scout stories there in advance) – but it means broadcasting a lot of content from one place for days on end – and if you don’t live there, are you really interested in hearing from the landlord of the local pub/town crier/WI chair in Anytown every week? It feels ‘parish pump’ – and I’m not sure BBC local can even get away with that anymore.

  9. I’m still giggling. Great blog and great comments.

    It comes down to not having the budget, set against not wanting to retreat into your studio cave and never come out. Rewind a decade and the BBC local I was programming at the time went to the three-day county show. We had a corner site, hard-standing, metro deck stage with an inflatable cover, PA, lighting, seats for the audience, all-day off-air stage entertainment, 15 metre hard-framed exhibition tent, PR display, charity display, free merch., 1830 regional TV set and sofa, live radio studio and autrograph booth. “The Archers” even came along with their travelling drama show, so our punters could work the spot FX tray for Eddie Grundy. “Proper job” as they have a won’t to say in those parts! But it cost a lot of money and there was no commercial sponsor. The Daily Mail would wipe the floor if they saw that amount of license-payers hard-earned being used to entertain the farmers these days. A pull-up banner, a free balloon and an audio tour of the stickies in the tea-tent just won’t do it though …

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